In Conversation with Joyce Tischler, the “Mother of Animal Law”

In Conversation with Joyce Tischler, the “Mother of Animal Law”

Joyce Tischler, affectionately known as “the Mother of Animal Law,” is the co-founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in the US and was ALDF’s executive director for twenty-five years. She is currently the ALDF General Counsel. 

We spoke to Joyce at the Minding Animals Conference in Mexico City about her work in animal law, and her thoughts on the movement to recognise legal rights for nonhuman animals.  

What is the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and why did you start it?  

I founded the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 1979 in San Francisco, California, and we started as a small discussion group of attorneys and law students. We discussed the problems faced by animals and we taught ourselves about the laws, both federal and Californian, that impacted animals. As time went by, activists found out about us, and began bringing animal-related legal problems to us. At that time, the activists in the US were very much involved in demonstrations and marches, and challenging the use of animals in research. They wanted us to represent them when they got arrested. In the earliest days, it was a completely volunteer organization. Litigating was difficult because we all had full-time jobs, and we didn’t have funding, an office, equipment, or support. It took years for us to get established.

Could you explain to us what legal personhood is, and why there is a growing movement to recognise nonhuman animals as legal persons? 

Personhood is a legal concept. If you are a “person”, you have legal rights; in the eyes of the law, you matter. The law has to accord you certain protections. If you are not a person and you are property, as animals are throughout the United States and the world, then you don’t matter and you can be used, abused and exploited in any way imaginable. The only thing that potentially protects you is cruelty laws or certain welfare protection laws, but the needs of animals are almost always trumped by the needs and interests, or even the convenience of human beings.

Prof. Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) are trying to use the common law to convince courts that animals have interests, and that they are enough like humans in ways that matter, such that they should be accorded legal rights, instead of simply legal protections that have to be enforced by someone else.

In your opinion, what are some of the successes the animal personhood movement has had so far?  

When you start a movement, first you experience ridicule and people ignoring you. The next stage comes when you are able to create a more broad-based and serious discussion. So, the Nonhuman Rights Project has reached that second stage. Some of the leading constitutional law scholars in the United States have discussed, written and debated about personhood for animals. Some academics oppose the idea of legal rights for nonhuman animals, while others embrace it. The NhRP has been able to bring about a worldwide discussion about the intellectual and social capacities of animals, and a deeper understanding of who they are in their own right, not as defined by the humans who exploit them.

There is an interesting interplay between how society changes and how the law changes. You don’t really know which is going to come first, and we need to remember that judges are part of society. They reflect society, and so if you can convince a judge that a chimpanzee should be able to live in a way that comports with his or her own well-being and not be exploited solely for human purposes, you are probably well on the way to convincing the larger society of that fact.

If chimpanzees were recognised as legal persons, what would be the legal consequences?  

The potential for the legal recognition of the rights of animals is something that scares a lot of people. For example, if a chimpanzee is a legal person, can we can no longer use chimpanzees in research? Can we continue to imprison them in zoos? Those sorts of questions cause a lot of people to want to stop the conversation from happening at all.

But, with regard to chimpanzees, an interesting development has occurred in the United States in the last ten years. The National Institutes of Health, which is one of our major funding agencies for research on animals, has announced that it will no longer fund research on chimpanzees. I didn’t expect to see that kind of progress within my lifetime. NIH claimed that its decision was based on science and, to a lesser extent, ethics. Reading between the lines, I think NIH was influenced by the larger society questioning the continued exploitation of chimpanzees.

We can thank Jane Goodall and others who have taught us about how extraordinary chimpanzees are. We are starting to see the ripple effects of their scientific and ethical work. So, what will happen now? The chimpanzees in publicly funded research are being sent to sanctuaries. That leaves chimpanzees in non-publicly funded research, in zoos, roadside zoos, circuses, and those who are privately owned by individuals. Will all chimpanzees be released and sent to a sanctuary? That would be my hope. But the reality is that as we’ve seen before, a social movement takes two steps forward and then one step back, and then another two steps forward, and so on. There is always pushback from forces that are working against the movement, either for economic or other reasons. And the progress you thought you were going to make is slowed down.

The important thing is that we take those first steps in the evolution for rights for animals. It doesn’t matter to me whether the breakthrough species is chimpanzees or dogs or elephants. Once that breakthrough is made, then we’ll evaluate what to do next, and hopefully, continue to build a more just and inclusive society.

Watch our video exploring the concept of legal personhood for animals here.

Listen to our podcast on the Moral & Legal Status of Animals featuring Joyce here.

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